By the time I was 12, I had decided that religion was a load of nonsense – a series of fairy tales with no reality behind them. But then I found a new friend at school, a highly intelligent person, and discovered he was a Christian! Soon he had invited me to join him at a Christian Boys Club and they introduced me to Jesus! Yes I had known about Jesus before, and sung about him in Hymns and Christmas Carols, but the Jesus they introduced me to was a real person, a strong dynamic preacher who was prepared to die for the message he carried, and did so. What’s more they introduced him to me as someone who could become my friend, my companion on the way, and he has been that for me ever since.
It was Jesus who gradually brought me back to God the Father That may sound strange to some of you, but to start with Jesus was all that God was for me if I believed in God at all! I was still stuck with the idea that God the Father was an old man with a beard sitting up there somewhere on a cloud. But Jesus was a real person with a radical message that challenged people to make a choice – for God or for Caesar – (Our Gospel Matt 22:15-21) for a world of love and peace, or a world of money and privilege and power. So I chose Jesus!
This, of course, is precisely why God chose to become a man, a real historical person with a real historical background, as a 1st Century Jew, with a real mother who was clearly as radical as her son. For Mary said “God has put down the mighty from their seat, and raised up the poor and lowly.” (See Luke 1:46-55) This was another reason why I loved Jesus. When I had been taken to Church as a boy, it was to a very conventional middle of the road place in respectable London suburb. But the Jesus I now met challenged all this, because whatever else he was, Jesus was not respectable!
It took me some years to realise, at least in part, what it means to say that Jesus was not just a man with a wonderful message that he died for, but also that he was God in human form. This is an amazing claim you know, that we too easily take for granted. The pagans at the time certainly had stories of gods appearing as human beings, but they were still gods only pretending to be human. Now there are some people who think Jesus is like that, but beware – he isn’t. Pagan gods in human form do not suffer and bleed and die. Pagan gods zap in and out of this world at will performing miracles like a marvellous magician who can disappear in a puff of white smoke. Jesus was not like this.
This is particularly shown by his reluctance to say that he was the Messiah – the Christ – the Holy One of God. We believe that now, but we are looking at him after his death and resurrection; but Jesus knew how easily this idea of him as the Christ could be misunderstood. After all the great prophet Isaiah even hailed as Messiah a foreign Persian king who ruled the greatest Empire then known. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus.” (1st Reading Isaiah 45:1.) No, Jesus knew he must not be thought of like that.
Actually in the time of Jesus all sorts of people appeared at various times claiming “I am the Christ”, and, if you think about it, by claiming it showed that they were not. It would be a bit like me wandering around saying “I am the greatest Catholic priest ever”. As soon as I began to say it or even think it, I would have condemned myself. Jesus knew that people had to discover for themselves that in him they were meeting God, and only gradually to work out the implication of this earth-shattering discovery. Think of St Peter, who at one time declared Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16) and yet couldn’t cope with the idea that this Messiah could suffer and die like an ordinary man.
Again and again, when he is asked questions about himself Jesus turns the question upside down and leaves us to decide whether to choose the way of the world – or the way of God. Later, after he has died, the risen Jesus does not appear like a thunderbolt from the sky, so obviously God that no-one can do anything but accept him and bow down before him. No, even in his risen Body, and still today, Jesus allows each of us to choose whether to follow him or not, whether to take up our cross alongside him, as our Master and our Friend, or to go the way of the world.
We, you and I, still have to make that choice every day. I may have chosen to follow Jesus when I was 12, but I have had to choose to follow him again and again in the years since. You have to do the same. It is not enough just to come to Mass. We have to make it real for ourselves. Yes with the help of the Church and of others around us, but also on our own inner spiritual journey with God. Sometimes we just have to say “Jesus, God, help me. I am really struggling to believe in you.” At other times we must not forget to say “Jesus, God, thank you for being with me when I was at my lowest ebb, or at this wonderful moment of joy.”
This journey for me has been a discovery of his power and his presence, but also a hard road in which there have been many worries, difficulties and tears. It must be the same for you. Blessed John Henry Newman makes a distinction, which I have only just discovered, between “difficulties” of which there are many, and “doubt”. Before, I often said I had many doubts, but now following him I call them difficulties, because deep down, despite so many things that worry me and trouble me, I have no real doubt that God in Jesus is with me, and will be with me to the end of time. So I offer my life to him, and plod on.